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The Natives Eat Eyeballs

20 September 2011

A co-worker once asked me, “Is America really so different from Norway?” We were having lunch and I looked down at my plate to compose a suitable response. I felt offended by his lack of understanding, his indifference to the predicament of the immigrant.

“I’ll have you know,” I wanted to say, “that in America we don’t eat dinner at 4 p.m. We don’t eat sour herrings for breakfast. Or brown goat’s cheese. Or squirt shrimp cheese out of a tube that looks like it might hold toothpaste. We eat hot lunches. It doesn’t typically rain two inches a day where I’m from, and we don’t have stores that sell only rain coats and we don’t have vending machines that sell umbrellas. In winter it’s not dark for 20 hours a day. Our coats, bags and dogs don’t have reflectors swinging from them. In America you would be considered a bad parent if you shoved your children out the door in the pouring rain and left them there alone for two hours. Saturday isn’t candy day.  Milk and sugar is always offered with coffee. We don’t have to pay for our grocery bags. Or a TV license. We can buy things whenever we want them – just on a whim I can buy underwear, Pringles, a bottle of Beaujolais, a carton of fresh strawberries, a picture frame, a grill, a paper-shredder and a baby stroller. All at the same store! At 3 a.m.! Where I’m from we don’t have inside and outside shoes – although it’s a good idea – or floor heaters. We don’t call each other “You!” (“Du!”) and we line up at bus stops and bars. We only have one flusher on our toilets, not a special lever for … well, bigger jobs. Taxi drivers aren’t women, and men with beards and leather jackets don’t have lunch at artsy cafes with their babies in strollers. Really, I think it all boils down to the fact that every day in America my mail comes in English. And if the phone rings someone will be speaking English. And when I need to explain to the impatient man at the Elkjøp service counter how I accidentally melted the hose of my vacuum cleaner to the fireplace I don’t need to write my sentences out beforehand with a dictionary. So, yes! America IS REALLY DIFFERENT from Norway!”

I looked up from my salad and said, as flatly as possible to mask the exclamation marks shooting through my brain, “Yes, America is really different.”

The list kept building in my head as the day went on: bigger differences, fundamental differences, differences that signalled an entirely different worldview and not just my queasiness about squirting fish out of tubes . . . how, for example, a preschool wouldn’t ever give its four-year-olds real knives to help cut the vegetables for lunch. Or how a church choir in America would never hope to earn money from its members buying weekly lottery tickets.

And then there’s the whole eating eyeballs thing. The ones found in lambs’ heads, I mean. Around Christmas. Even if not all Norwegians would eat the eyeballs out of a lamb’s head that has had all the fluffy woolly bits burnt off, this is something no Americans do. Not even the ones who live in Minnesota.

I remember a conversation with one of my tutors at grad school who, sitting back into the corner of his high, stiff chair with legs crossed, would always pretend to ask what I thought of something when he was really ensuring that I met his requirements for intelligence.

“When we meet someone for the first time what do we notice about them?”

“How they are different from us?” I guessed.

“Noooo….” he intoned. “We notice how they are similar to us, don’t we?”

Well, clearly we did, so I laughed and said, “Oh, yes! Right!”

That conversation has stuck with me to this day because I do notice differences everywhere. In my defence, I think the differences tend to stand out just a little bit more than the similarities. But why do they mean so much?

As I trudge through the puddles in my knee-high rain boots, swinging a grocery bag full of foods I would never eat in America in one hand, and sipping bitter, black coffee from a cup in the other, I think of this penchant for dividing the world into “Norway” and “America” and think: How else would I know that I am still me?



When I contacted Ivar Løne — the “King” of smalahove (“sheep’s head”) producers — for permission to use some of the photos from his website for this post, he not only sent me extra photos but kindly invited me to his family-run business in Voss to see the process of making smalahove from beginning end. Last year Ivar sold a record 80,000 smalahove, enough for 160,000 dinners! I have happily accepted his invitation to learn more about this unique tradition and promise a full report!

Smalahove dinner, served to guests in Ivar Løne's 18th c. "Stabburet" (wooden granary). (Photo by Brit Løne; used with permission.)


Ivar Løne with his five grandchildren, roasting lambs' heads in the traditional way over an open fire. (Photo by Brit Løne, used with permission.)



















33 Comments leave one →
  1. 20 September 2011 14:56

    Where I live in Minnesota (quite rural) I can’t buy anything at 3am unless it’s online and not much of anything is open on Sunday. I always drink my coffee black (as god intended) and my Icelandic relatives have gotten me comfortable with edible sheep parts. See the similarity? “Different” is a “Minnesota nice” term for weird. And while I am able to assimilate to “different” surroundings, no one knows what is really on my mind as I smile and nod. Very informative post!

    • 21 September 2011 08:06

      You are definitely prepared to live here, Jon! 🙂 My sister lives in the St. Paul area and I love that she knows what lefse and lutefisk are.

  2. RHR permalink
    20 September 2011 16:29

    I think your tutor was just plain wrong, if most people first noticed the similarities they had with other people, we’d be living in quite a different world.

    Hmm, of course, I was thinking about how people naturally spot the 1 that is different if you see a set of items where 1 differs, but I guess it might be quite different in meeting people, especially since one of those you’d be comparing to would be invisible (yourself).

    I guess even if people notice similarities first, they seem to act on differences.

    • 21 September 2011 08:08

      You’re right – we are taught to spot differences. Hadn’t thought about that. (And even Sesame Street, known for its embracing of differences, has that little song, “Which of these things is not like the other?”). I think my tutor, probably nearing 70 when we had that conversation, had a narrow, or maybe even overly optimistic view of the world.

  3. Teresa Owens permalink
    20 September 2011 17:07

    Bjorn and Gro are will be here the 2nd week of October, and I already know where to find some great creamed herring (gack), good bread (STILL doesn’t stand up to Norwegian bread), bronost, and um…..can’t find the dried sheepshank….and we plan on taking them to Costco…just to see THEIR eyeball pop out at how, as Bill Maher puts it, in America, we shop with forklifts!

    • 21 September 2011 08:10

      LOL! I completely forgot about shopping with forklifts! It’s been 2 years since we’ve been back to the U.S., but every time I enter a US grocery store I feel like cowering beneath the sky-high shelves. It’s also overwhelming to have so much to choose from. And yet, choice is what I miss in Norway! — you can get brunost in the U.S.?! But of course you can. Enjoy their visit!

  4. 20 September 2011 20:58

    And in America we have these red octagonal-shaped road signs, which do a good job of protecting cars from smashing into one another, especially at busy 4-way intersections or difficult to spot intersections! Of course, in Norway, there are roundabouts, which do a fabulous job at keeping traffic moving through busy intersections. Too bad we can’t learn a little from one another on these two points!

    • 21 September 2011 08:16

      Another LOL! I love that everyone has their own “Life in America” snippets to share here. I still can’t get used to the fact that when you are driving on a MAIN road you still have to yield to a car coming from the right if there are no little triangle marks on it. In our first year here I had to pass one of those every day on my way to the barnehage and I remember telling my husband, “These people are NUTS! I’m going to get into an accident the way they just cut out in front of me!” Of course no one had told me about that rightaway rule and I’m sure all the Norwegians were cursing me!

      But you also pointed to something which I think is the real predicament of the immigrant: to want to have it both ways! To take all the good things from each country and put them together into a perfect place. THAT’S where I want to live! 🙂

      • 21 September 2011 10:58

        Luckily (I guess) on my second day of living in Norway, my husband was driving himself to work (with me in the passenger seat, so I could learn the way) and we almost got broadsided by someone approaching from the right! I was jet-lagged and completely out of my element and was like “What the hell was that????” And he explained the rule to me–he knew it, had just forgotten it himself. I was terrified to drive back home, wondering if every driveway, parking lot, alley, or those odd half road/alley/dirt driveways were actually a legitimate road or not. I still think it’s absolutely ludicrous there’s not a single stop sign in Lillehammer!

  5. 21 September 2011 10:52

    nicely written. as an american living in denmark, i would much rather have a dane point out our similarities than our differences. i’ve been singled out enough here for well over one lifetime. -_-

    • 21 September 2011 10:56

      It goes both ways, doesn’t it! 🙂 Thanks for your comment.

      On Wed Sep 21st, 2011 5:52 AM EDT

  6. 21 September 2011 18:48

    Have to leave one more: in America, we don’t send our preschoolers to daycare wearing *only* long underwear, nor do our babies take their naps outside in a stroller in frigid temperatures.

    • 21 September 2011 19:59

      Oh my – I had a good laugh when I read this. It’s so funny how these differences stand out, and especially during the first year or so in Norway! But I have come around to the fact that these are both very good ideas! Putting kids in just wool is easy (fewer clothes to buy, less to wash) and comfortable and they are the perfect temp in the barnehage and outside. And isn’t it sweet the way kids look all bundled up in their wool and wool sleeping bags? I love those little rosy faces sticking out!

  7. 21 September 2011 19:39

    Hahaha, very funny post 🙂 I like it

    I never knew about the eyeballs thing, and I thought eating pine branch meat is strange enough O_O

    • 21 September 2011 19:52

      Pine branch dinners are very strange indeed! (I had to google that! Maybe I haven’t been lost while camping in enough?)

      • 22 September 2011 06:07

        Whoa! I thought it’s staple food for Norwegian christmas?

      • 22 September 2011 15:18

        Well, between the sheep’s head and the slab of dehydrated lamb’s ribs … I might just take the pine bark! 😉

  8. brelle permalink
    22 September 2011 08:14

    It is, in some parts of the country. Especially in the west and northern parts of Norway. According to Wikipedia, as much as 31% of norwegians has it for their christmas dinner. (Me included)

    There are alot more to chose from though. I’ve included this link that explains all the varity to the christmas dinners in Norway. Hope it helps:

    • 22 September 2011 15:16

      Hi Brelle! Do you really eat smalahove for Xmas? I thought it was more myth than reality — but then again, 31% is a sizeable percentage! Do you eat the eyeball? Since promising I would go to Smalahovetunet in Voss I have become a bit worried about tasting the eyeball. I’m just not sure I can, but at the same time, I feel that since I really do live in Norway I really should take part in Norwegian traditions! Thanks for the link as well!

      • Brelle permalink
        23 September 2011 07:44

        My apologies. I seem to have goofed up, doh 🙂

        I was trying to add an reply to what “this indonesian” wrote about pine branch dinners (or “pinnekjøtt” if you like). I saw that I had forgotten to fill in a name for the reply.. so I did and then promptly hit enter… which rewarded me with a message saying “posting comment”. I had only written about half of what I was supposed to and found myself trying to cancel the reply. Clearly it didn’t go well, but I went back a page in my webbrowser and wrote my post again (in the good belief that it would be posted as a reply where I originally wanted it), but I now see that it came as a reply for the article itself instead of a reply to what “this indonesian” wrote.

        I’m sorry to disappoint, but I’ve never actually eaten smalahove. Never even seen it prepared except on some tv-show where they want to shock foreign tourists who wants to try some traditional, norwegian cuisine. This is despite me coming from the western parts of Norway (where smalahove is the most popular or so I believe) and my grandparents were raising sheep on their farm. Our family has always had pinnekjøtt for Xmas. My dad will also eat some lutefisk (stockfish that has been lying in water and lye until it’s all jello like) in addition to it on the 25th of December. We don’t eat the pinnekjøtt traditionally with potatoes, pieces of meat and such lying on a plate, but I’ll leave out the details as it’ll make this reply way too long.

        I have heard that many do eat the eyeball as well when “feasting” on a smalahove and some even say that it’s a delicacy. From what I’ve heard, you’re supposed to start the meal with the eye, as it’s better when it’s hot. (although, don’t quote me on this)

        I think you’re very brave to be wanting to taste the smalahove, but don’t feel less of a norwegian even if you should choose not to eat the eye. Most norwegian have not tasted the eye of a smalahove, although that might be a reason to taste it I suppose 🙂 Please do tell us how it went!

        I think smalahove is a perfect example of why you won’t see any restaurants outside of Norway preparing traditional meals. Could you imagine such a place right next to a chinese restaurant in the US? I certainly can not.

  9. 23 September 2011 08:37

    Wait a minute — maybe I’m confused. I thought This Indonesian meant that some Norwegians really ate pine bark! As in this: (survival in the wilderness thing)

    As for PINEkjøtt … ok! I get it now!:)

  10. Nisia in Japan permalink
    26 September 2011 14:30

    Long time reader but first time poster. I have been reading your blog for some time now and I enjoy it greatly. I am an American living in Japan and like your tutor, I am struck at the many similarities between Norway and Japan. We too have a small and big flush. We of course quite famously have indoor and outdoor shoes. Kids are allowed to use knives (under adult supervision) even at 4 years old and are in fact encouraged to help with dinner. Children are indeed left unsupervised much of the day and have more freedom than back home and etc. There are so many similarities that I can go on and on for some time.

    However, I just wanted to say a simple thank you. Thank you! i find myself having difficulty explaining my feelings sometimes but I come here to find that you found an eloquent way to put into words the feeling of living abroad.

    • 27 September 2011 08:30

      Hi Nisia in Japan! Thank you so very much for taking the time to comment. It is always heartening to hear that I am not the only person who feels these ups and downs of life abroad!

      What you wrote about the similarities between Japan and Norway fascinates me because, on the surface, I can think of only huge differences between the two countries! (Although I have never been to Japan). But Japan, like Norway, places a strong emphasis on community, right? And perhaps on personal responsibility as well? (which is why children can have knives and saws and do all sorts of “adult” things like watching over themselves). I’d love to hear more about Japan!

      I think the greater point my tutor was trying to make — although he never said this — was that we are all actually and truly more alike than we are different. But the differences really do stand out more!

      I going to now have a look at your photos!

      • Nisia In Japan permalink
        29 September 2011 01:07

        I think your tutor makes a good point. We notice the differences maybe because otherwise we would be so much alike. I definitely feel like that in Japan. If only they didn’t do this or that, I could very well be back in America. Mind, I am living in the Kansai (Osaka) area which is very, very, very different from the Kanto (Tokyo) area.

        Getting back to the question, yes, Japan places a lot of emphasis on the community and personal responsibility for the community’s well-being. It took a while to get used to that way of thinking. My wallet fell near the gas station one time and not even two minutes later, someone had called to ask me when I wanted to pick it up. An acquaintance of mine lost his wallet recently while on vacation on another city and it magically came back in the mail with money, credit cards, etc intact. It baffles me sometimes how honest they are! They are honest even in business so when you go shopping, they might tell you to go elsewhere if it’s cheaper. I couldn’t understand why they would do this but someone explained to me that the majority of Japanese people would worry about you being put out or not having enough to feed your family.

        Japanese people are as resilient as Norwegian people too. When the Tohoku Triple Disasters struck Japan in March, I was shocked at their kindness to one another and how they calmly organized evacuations and the like. There are some bad aspects of living in Japan of course but these incidents reminded me of two of your previous posts about buying a car and the recent tragedy in Norway.

        Anyways, before it gets too long, please keep on writing! I always look forward to reading a new post.

      • 30 September 2011 08:22

        You are right! There really are a lot of similarities between Japanese society and Norwegian society! I had to chuckle about the stores telling you where you might find better prices — this is also the case her. In fact a bank told us that we could getter a better loan rate for our house elsewhere!

  11. 28 September 2011 20:01

    I definitely enjoyed reading this post and thought I would share one of my own that is somewhat on topic:

    • 28 September 2011 20:24

      Just left some comments there, but will say here: THANKS! for letting me know about your new blog! Very exciting and I look forward to more posts – esp. as you adorn them with such gorgeous photos!

  12. 3 October 2011 18:43

    Here, here. You just articulated 70% of my daily frustrations. But might I add, since you do live in Bergen and are thereby an “urbanite”, try life out in the sticks (like Sogn og Fjordane, where I live- big difference from the Twin Cities!) You’ll find even more frustrating differences, I’m affraid. I guess we just learn to live with our burnt coffee and rotten, overpriced vegetables from Thailand. p.s. I’m really going to have to start following your blog

    • 3 October 2011 18:58

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Siri! I think differences are almost always frustrating, what ever form they take. But I know there are many, many things I could never give up about living in Norway. And that’s what makes being an immigrant, or dual culture person being so hard! …where is the PERFECT country!?! 🙂

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